Learning from the success of small, cheap and deadly drones in Ukraine, the Pentagon on Monday announced a new drone program, "Replicator" to better prepare for a possible attrition with China.
Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks introduced the “Replicator” program at the Emerging Technologies conference hosted by the National Defense Industrial Association. She emphasized that Replicator aims to drive advancements in U.S. military innovation by prioritizing smaller, intelligent, cost-effective platforms.
The program will be overseen by Hicks and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Christopher Grady, along with support from Doug Beck of the Defense Innovation Unit. More details will be disclosed in the upcoming weeks.
Replicator operates on two key assumptions. The first is that China's strength lies in numbers—more ships, missiles, and personnel—and the optimal U.S. response is innovation rather than direct parity. The second assumption focuses on attritable, autonomous systems, referencing the effectiveness of inexpensive commercial drones in the Ukrainian conflict and Russia's similar approach prior to its recent invasion.
While acknowledging the value of traditional large and expensive platforms, Hicks emphasized Replicator's concentration on expediting the Department of Defense's recent investments in autonomous systems. The program aims to rapidly deploy numerous small drones, aligning with previous calls for leveraging commercial innovation for scalable capabilities.
House appropriators supported this strategy by earmarking $1 billion in their fiscal 2025 defense spending bill for a DIU-managed portfolio comprising affordable drones, agile communication methods, computing modes, and AI capabilities. The Replicator program is intended to consolidate the Department of Defense's AI investments and enhance production scalability, although it's unclear if additional funding is provided.